This is a story about pirates. I know, we saw them in that movie with Tom Hanks, and we saw Navy SEALs ventilate some Somali pirates a few years back. But have you ever stopped to wonder WHY the Somalis started taking to piracy? Fish. And at this point you’re like, ‘huh?’ But hear me out.
The conflict in Somalia was long, drawn-out, and painful for everyone involved – not least of which, for the U.S. forces which found themselves trying to keep some sort of peace and capture Mohamed Farah Aideed. After OPERATION GOTHIC SERPENT’s brutal end in 1991 (which I won’t go into here, but RLTW and NSDQ), the U.S. pulled out of Somalia. The country descended into alternating spasms of anarchy and lawlessness until they pulled (back) together as a coalition.
During all this time, there was no effective way for the Somali people to control their country’s seas (which is referred to as an Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ for short). As a result Chinese (and other) mega-trawlers felt perfectly fine, cruising in and bottom-trawling Somali waters. In bottom trawling, a weighted net is dragged across the seafloor, hoovering up EVERYTHING, leaving it looking a lot like the moon. Especially in the “devoid of life part.”
At this point, you might be saying “f*ck Somalia! They got what they deserved!” It’s a sentiment that I can’t deny appreciating on a certain level. But here’s where it becomes interesting/relevant for where we’re going later on – come along for the ride. What do you get when you have 1) essentially dead seas that aren’t coming back to viability any time soon, 2) useless fishing boats idling in port, 3) a surfeit of guns and 4) hungry dudes who want to feed their families? Somali pirates. That’s what you get. You get Somali pirates. And Captain Philips. And another Tom Hanks movie.
The international community got all in a kerfuffle – “how dare they attack honest merchants!? We’re just trying to get this cargo ship full of blow-up dolls through the Suez Canal!” But the reality is that if you take away a man’s ability to feed his family, one way or another, he will find a way. Looking at the “why” is a lot harder than looking at the “what”, but in this case, it has implications for long-term global prosperity and security.
Fast forward to today. A certain country that shall not be named, (ok, I’ll give you a clue, starts with a “C” and ends with “hina”) has continued to expand its “ghost” fleet. They fish in Argentina, Chile, in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. They fish all over Africa. They’re even fishing in the polar regions. Two years ago, the Russians let the Chinese start fishing off the Kamchatka peninsula – right across the Bering Strait from Alaska. And for some STRANGE COINCIDENCE, the catch of certain species in our territorial seas was down 40% last year. One might be inclined to say that China is quite literally eating our lunch.
Some might chalk it up to ignorance “I guess that I just didn’t know what’s going on.” Or maybe it’s just apathy – “I know what’s going on, but doing something about it is so harrrrrrd…” And the cherry on top might just be greed: “meh, sure my people aren’t going to have anything to eat and thousands of livelihoods will be destroyed… but have you SEEN the rims on my Bentley!?”
China has been treating the “grey area” like a swimming pool since they received “most favored nation status” – prove me wrong. They have a big population, and their people want protein. The boats that turn off their transponders while fishing illegally? Rogue captains, private companies, definitely NOT an attempt by the Chinese government to suborn and bypass laws to steal from other countries. TRUST us, they say – we’re perfectly above-board (gratuitous naval reference). The spontaneous “coast guard” that is squatting in Philippine waters also falls into this category, btw.
But it got me to thinking; if your adversary is exploiting the grey area, and you fail to engage him there, who is really to blame for your loss? That’s right, you are. So to that end (in order to engage in the grey area), I have a proposal. But first, another history lesson.
Back in the 1600s, the British Empire was locked in a struggle with the Spanish Empire. More accurately, the Spanish were stealing pretty much anything they could get that held any value, and taking the profits to Spain. The British crown was 1) pissed off that they hadn’t thought of it first and 2) pissed off that the Spanish were so successful at it. The solution, as it were, was to create “Letters of Marque” for privateers. Private ships went across the Atlantic and raided the Spanish treasure fleets. The British crown had plausible deniability, so as to not provoke a war with their rival, Spain. And the Privateers were (supposed to be) focused on very specific targets.
Letters of Marque and Reprisal are specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) as being part of Congress’s war powers. I’m willing to bet that Blackwater/Xe Services/Academi or whatever they’re called today would be able to come up with more than a few willing and capable “independent contractors” who could effectively pilot fast boats armed with surface-launched torpedoes.
So break out your eyepatch and parrot, here’s what I am–and many others are–suggesting. Modern Privateers. When “Ghost” boats that belong to OH I HAVE NO IDEA go into a country’s fishing grounds, when they get hailed three times and don’t answer, and when they operate with their transponders turned off so they can’t be found, they get SUNK. Do not pass “Go,” do not collect $200 worth of fish. The Privateer collects a $$ bounty (if they prove they sunk a ship) and that’s one less thief in the World. And if China wants to complain about their ship being sunk, they will also have to justify why it was fishing illegally to the World. You have to admit that would be an interesting conversation:
“Why did you sink our fishing boat?!”
“What fishing vessel?! There was nothing on radar.”
“The one that was fishing illegally in your EEZ.”
You might be inclined to say that this measure is an overreaction. But is it, really? Oceans, coastal and marine resources are very important for people living in coastal communities, who represented 37 percent of the global population in 2017. The thousands of fishermen around the World, and their families that they are struggling to feed, deserve better. You might say “well we can’t tell the countries what to do, and we can’t be the World Navy.” I think that if you sink a few dozen ships, those transponders will start getting turned back on.
You might say “Barbaric! How can you justify a loss of life to save fish!?” And it’s true. As the DVDs used to tell us, “Piracy is not a victimless crime.” But taking away the livelihoods – the means of survival – of thousands of fishermen, that’s a loss of life itself. And by stealing food off of people’s plates, China is sowing chaos. Hungry people tend to be angry, let’s be honest, and governments that can’t feed their people don’t tend to last.
At the end of the day, it’s Somalia all over again, but globally. We’re heading towards 1) essentially dead seas that aren’t coming back to viability any time soon, 2) useless fishing boats idling in port, 3) a surfeit of guns and 4) hungry dudes who want to feed their families? Is appeasing China really worth it? It may seem like binary logic, but in my limited perspective, it comes down to two options: We can clutch our pearls, say “tut-tut” and let China continue to take other people’s stuff. Or we can do something about it.